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Surface Spills: The Real Environmental Risk

Published: Fri, March 1, 2013 @ 12:00 a.m.

The Ohio EPA’s Jan. 31 discovery of the illegal dumping of drilling wastes by Hardrock Excavating underscores the real environmental risk of oil and gas exploration and production activities.

Ever since the release of the 2010 documentary film “Gasland,” geologists and environmental scientists familiar with the oil and gas industry have spent countless hours explaining to the public that it is the handling of production fluids at the surface, not the process of hydraulic fracturing, that poses real risk to our environment.

The Utica Shale and Point Pleasant Formation throughout the wet-gas zone of eastern Ohio lies at depths between 7,000 and 9,000 feet below the surface. The notion that the hydraulic-fracturing process known as “fracking” can produce fractures that will extend to the surface and provide pathways for the migration of fracking fluids into our ground water and surface-water resources violates many well- established geologic principles and basic laws of physics.

The truth of the matter is fracking fluids and naturally occurring brine, oil and natural-gas liquids all pose significant environmental risk if they are not handled correctly once they have been brought from the depths of the earth to the surface by producing wells.

Brine is a naturally occurring fluid that starts out as marine saltwater trapped within the sediments as they accumulate on the sea floor. Over the millions of years that follow, the sediments are gradually buried to depths of thousands of feet as more sediments pile up.

The sediments lithify into rock, and the saltwater concentrates until it contains more than 100,000 parts per million (one-tenth) dissolved salts along with metals and organic compounds. Oil and gas are slowly produced from algae and bacteria trapped within shale as the burial gradually heats the rock through a process known as thermal maturation. Oil and gas is made of hydrocarbons and a whole slew of other volatile and semi-volatile organic and toxic compounds.

The oil and gas industry works very hard to supply our nation’s and the world’s demand for energy in an environmentally responsible fashion. Nonetheless, production fluids are hazardous materials, and the risk of spills is ever present. The fundamental ways in which production fluids can be spilled at the surface and threaten our environment boils down to a few basic and preventable situations that includes human error, negligence, equipment failure and insufficient surface storage capacity.

Think about it: Every time any production fluid is transferred from one holding vessel to another — whether it be from the well head to a pipeline or a storage container to a truck, or a truck to an injection well or treatment facility — the opportunity for spillage is present. Proper employee training, equipment maintenance and facility design can effectively eliminate the risk of spills.

Situations more difficult to control and prevent include accidents and the apparent disrespect for the environment, regulations and federal laws demonstrated by Ben Lupo of Hardrock Excavating.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Oil and Gas along with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency are the regulatory and enforcement agencies of our state government. The body of regulations that we have today are the product of many years of experience and the adoption of new regulations as the oil and gas industry evolves and new technologies are created.

As shale-gas exploration and production in eastern Ohio expands in the years to come, the ODNR and the OEPA will be faced with the continuing challenge of enforcing regulations. The easiest and most-effective thing that citizens and elected officials can do to prevent spills and minimize the environmental risks of oil and gas production is to make sure our state agencies are sufficiently funded to hire the additional field inspectors, technicians and other personnel needed to carry out their important mission.

As for the Ben Lupos of the world, prosecution of illegal acts and revocation of operation permits will send the message that flagrant violation of laws and disregard for the environment will not be tolerated.

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